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CUBA
Changes ahead?
Lucila Horta
3/6/2008
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Raúl Castro assumes presidency, as island speculates on what’s to come.

For the first time since the 1976 creation of the National Assembly, Fidel Castro did not run again as the sole candidate to the Cuban presidency.

In a message published on Feb. 18, he announced that he would not accept to be re-elected as the country’s president and chief of the armed forces.

On Feb. 24, 614 lawmakers, who were elected in January, were sworn into the Sixth Legislature, which nominated Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, as president for a five-year term. Raúl Castro had been serving as interim president for the last 18 months, when his brother stepped aside for health reasons.

Ending speculation both on the island and abroad about the role Fidel would play in the future, Raúl asked lawmakers to authorize him to consult with Fidel on the major foreign affairs and military strategies. The assembly approved the motion unanimously.

“It was predictable that Fidel would participate even tangentially in important decisions,” said Luis René Fernández, a researcher with the Havana University’s Center for Studies on the United States.

“His ability to predict and anticipate delicate situations is proverbial ... Fidel always was a talented strategist. He stands out as one of the heavy-weight strategists in the current world.”

“It’s calming to know that Fidel will continue ... giving advice, because the age that is coming is very strong, and our country will enter in decisive moments with the changes to come,” said Nidia Díaz, a foreign policy analyst from Cuba.

Changes announced
In one of his first moves, the president asked the legislature to suspend the functions of central government administration offices — 27 ministries and four other institutes — because “today requires a more compact and functional structure, with a fewer number of bodies and a better distribution of functions to fulfill,” he said.

This reduction, said the younger Castro, 76, is aimed at cutting down “the huge number of meetings, co-ordinations, permits, regulations and many etceteras ...”

He says that these will allow for more concentration in certain decisive economic activities and a better use of human resources.

Most Cubans welcomed these announced changes. Excessive bureaucracy, leading to slow paperwork for even the simplest transactions, is a major complaint of Cubans.

Eliminating intermediary steps in the economy and services is likely to be welcomed by the island’s 11 million inhabitants.

An easing of the obstacles in daily life is a central part of the proposals presented by citizens after Raúl Castro called last year for a national debate on the future of Cuban socialism.

Among the measures he proposed are increases in agricultural production and sale, an issue debated heavily in each province and which is already being partially implemented.

Last December, while he was still acting president, Castro warned that actions will continue to be taken as quickly as possible to allow for land and resources “to be in the hands of those who are capable of producing efficiently, so they feel supported, socially recognized and receive the material retribution they deserve.”

An increase in food production will allow for a drop in prices, and economists say that it is essential to introduce flexibility for those who are a part of such an important sector.

An end to the rationing book?
Raúl Castro hinted that the rationing book may be completely eliminated. Through this card the basic food basket is distributed to the citizens, and though insufficient for a month of food consumption, it is composed of almost free products.

“Maintaining this plan of subventions is irrational and unsustainable,” he said, referring to the rationing book, which is a daily part of Cubans’ lives.
This was a major issue for Fidel years before he fell ill. It has provoked little debate, because it has been assured that nobody would be left unprotected.

Some experts say that it is more rational to subsidize people than products, giving each a stipend for what they require, or free food to low-income workers in neighborhood community cafeterias, as it is done now, than maintaining symbolic prices on goods that are given away both to those who lack resources and those who have too much.

Castro also said that he plans to analyze measures to eliminate the country’s dual currency: the Cuban peso — used to pay salaries and purchases — and the convertible peso to purchase unrationed products. He says it will be phased out gradually to avoid any brusque effects to the economy.

Raúl Castro also called on the legislature to implement a salary stimulus, that corresponds to each person’s educational background and contributions to society, since now, for example, a taxi driver or restaurant owner can earn the same as an eminent surgeon.


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